In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity

  • Introduction
  • What is Ethnicity?
  • Key Works on Ethnicity
  • Academic Journals on Ethnicity
  • Assimilation
  • Ethnic Pluralism
  • Symbolic and Optional Ethnicity
  • Ethnicity and Multiculturalism
  • Ethnicity, Race, and Whiteness
  • Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Ethnicity and Landscape
  • Ethnicity and Nation
  • Ethnicity and “the City”
  • Ethnicity, Capitalism, and Commercialism
  • Ethnicity, Migration, and Diaspora
  • Mapping Ethnicity

Geography Ethnicity
Thomas Sullivan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0112


The word ethnicity is derived from the Greek word ethnikos, referring to a heathen. It first surfaced in the English language in the 14th century, and by the 19th century it had evolved into a synonym for race. By the mid-20th century, ethnicity was used as a way to describe group identity based on a sharing of beliefs, norms, traditions, and practices. Within geography, the study of ethnicity permeates through a number of subdisciplines that include cultural, social, historical, economic, political, and urban geography, and the work of geographers emphasizes the spatial nature of ethnicity at multiple scales—from the nation to the body—focusing on individual and group place attachment. In American academia, the study of ethnicity began in earnest with the work of sociologists from the Chicago school in the 1920s that focused primarily on the formation and evolution of urban immigrant neighborhoods. Initially encapsulating essentialized notions of place attachment (territoriality) stemming from social Darwinism and environmental determinism, the meaning and use of ethnicity evolved into more of a socially constructed concept, replacing the politically loaded and controversial term race following the Second World War. Assimilation theories dominated the social sciences in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s, while strands of biological inheritance and race remained debatable within ethnic studies. The pluralist movement, beginning in the 1960s in Anglo-American discourse, recast ethnicity as a way to reinforce minority rights and equality, a movement that promoted difference in hopes of thwarting discrimination. The 1970s witnessed a flexibility in assimilation theory, and a rise in the constructivist movement. Beginning in the 1980s, a number of scholars adopted strands of postmodern, post-structural, and postcolonial thought in developing new ways of looking at the concept of ethnicity. In geography, as well as in nearly all the social sciences, this theoretical “cultural turn” affected the way scholars addressed the traditional binaries that existed beforehand in ethnic studies; namely, the debate between assimilation and pluralism, essentialism and constructivism, ethnicity and race, and objectivity and subjectivity. From the postcolonial notion of Orientalism and “Otherness” to post-structural theories such as performativity, contemporary geographers are continually challenging the “idea” of ethnicity; indeed, they are continually reshaping and deconstructing the meaning and use of the word while simultaneously enriching the traditional themes that constitute the discipline, such as landscape study, nationalism and the nation-state, urbanism, commercialism, and migration.

What is Ethnicity?

A number of texts exist that trace the history and evolution of the concept of ethnicity. To begin, Hiebert 2009 and Williams 1985 each offer generalized descriptions and a history of the word ethnicity, and demonstrate how the meaning of this word evolved over the past few centuries. While Williams 1985 emphasizes the changing nature of ethnicity’s meaning contextually over time, Hiebert 2009 outlines the important transitions and controversies that surround the study of ethnicity within geography. Others, such as Fenton 2010 and Hutchinson and Smith 1996, provide comprehensive overviews of the concept of ethnicity within the social sciences. Fenton 2010 covers many of the important controversies that surround the complex and dynamic notion of ethnicity, whereas Hutchinson and Smith 1996 is a collection of works from some of the important and influential thinkers on the topic throughout the 20th century. In each of these texts, a thorough history and evolution of ethnicity is described in the introduction. Ethnicity is a concept that has been studied extensively within American and British sociology since the 1920s, yet only in the past few decades has it expanded into other countries and infiltrated multiple disciplines. Within anthropology, for example, Jenkins 1997 explains why anthropologists were at first less inclined to include “ethnicity” in their writing, yet in contemporary work they have more readily adopted the concept—although not necessarily in a positive way. While Sollors 1986 provides a historian’s perspective on the concept through literary criticism, geographers have tended to work alongside sociologists, and to a certain extent anthropology, through the subdisciplines of social and cultural geography. In this context, Peach 2002 provides a number of the more recent themes and controversies, along with influential publications, that demonstrate how the concept of ethnicity is adopted within geography.

  • Fenton, Steve. Ethnicity. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

    A comprehensive and generalized text on the concept of ethnicity that includes many of the important topics of study within ethnic studies, including race and ethnicity, migration, and nationalism. First published 2003.

  • Hiebert, Daniel. “Ethnicity.” In The Dictionary of Human Geography. Edited by Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, 214–217. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    Hiebert provides a thorough and concise explanation and succinct history of ethnicity, and he outlines the major themes of study within contemporary geography.

  • Hutchinson, John, and Anthony D. Smith, eds. Ethnicity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    A compilation of essays from a number of prominent philosophers, theorists, and social scientists covering topics that form many of the important topics within ethnic studies.

  • Jenkins, Richard. Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations. London: SAGE, 1997.

    This text is an overview of the anthropological perspective of ethnicity, and of the primary controversies that surround the concept. Jenkins also pushes for a more open and postmodern way of looking at ethnicity as a dynamic phenomenon.

  • Peach, Ceri. “Social Geography: New Religions and Ethnoburbs—Contrasts with Cultural Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 26.2 (2002): 252–260.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132502ph368pr

    In Peach’s article on social geography, he begins with a section on “Ethnicity and Social Geography,” which outlines some of the more recent scholarship within ethnicity-related geography. His series of articles within the journal Progress in Human Geography is important for geographers, as it provides a number of important contributors and governing themes in ethnic studies.

  • Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Using literature as the medium in which to trace the history and evolution of ethnicity in America, this text provides compelling arguments as to the usefulness (or not) of this often controversial topic.

  • Williams, Raymond. “Ethnicity.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. By Raymond Williams, 119–120. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    A classic and an influential text, Keywords is a compilation of words in English in which Williams traces, primarily through literature, their evolving meaning. Ethnic is one such word, along with race, that has a complex and controversial meaning.

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